It is pretty easy to search for a list of magickal correspondences. Elemental correspondences list different colors to use, symbols, tools, incense, oils, and characteristics. Look up the zodiac and there is a list of signs and their elemental associations. Then there is different animal associations and what an animal means when it shows up in a dream. The four directions and where you should put certain items on your altar or where you should face with doing workings.
Of course, you then proceed to look up the same thing on another list, and find a completely different take. For the four elements, one place might list red for fire, blue for water, green for earth, and yellow for air. The another will say orange for fire, green for water, brown for earth, and blue for air.
The first pagan books I read had long sections with correspondence lists at the back to look up what to use to correspond to what. Back in the early pagan web days, I spent hours searching and diligently recording the information I thought I needed. In writing this post I pulled out my teenage Book of Shadows that never actually got filled to look up what I did end up writing down in it. There is a hand written list of zodiac signs marked with the elemental correspondence and if fruitful or barren, the Celtic Tree calendar, which goddesses are associated with what days, tides of day, the lunar cycle, and a very detailed diagram of the Wiccan Wheel of the year that I suspect is copied from a Farrar book.
With the exception of the lunar cycle and a very broad wheel of the year (although now I go by a Celtic model of Sow and Geimh as opposed to the Wiccan wheel) I never actually used any of these. Those books with endless lists of correspondences were returned to the library or in my “find another home pile”. Ultimately, I do pay attention to the days of the week named after Norse gods (I do have some Heathen practice, after all), whether it is a liminal time, and the moon phase. Maybe.
I have found after practicing it is better to use the tools you know then endlessly try to find the perfect tool for what you are looking for. Strangely, I have also come to the conclusion I need less as time goes on to have a good experience. What happens when you need to ground and center and you are away from your crystals or oils? You practice these skills while you are calm in different places until you can use them in less than ideal situations, which is when you most need them. Or you need to make an offering and the super special thing you need for your altar is on back order (or out of your budget)? Improvise, and use what you have.
I know die hard ceremonial Magicians would read this and able to recite their awesome results from performing a ritual at 11:11 on the night of the full moon of some astrological convergence and blah blah blah. There are plenty of people who calculate astrology using much more than the moon phase. I am not trying to say there is anything wrong, just that it isn’t my way. Don’t let not having the time, ability, or gumption to calculate the location of the planets at all times stop you from a pagan path.
Lesson that I hope is clear and repeated often on my blog: doing imperfectly is better than doing nothing. Imperfect can be improved, and mistakes can be learned from. Waiting to do until the ducks are in a row of alphabetized order according to color theory will mean time spent arranging ducks and learning nothing for how to do anything of value.
What if your Experience/Intuition Contradicts a Correspondence?
There may be many overlapping associations, but that does not mean they all line up. To me brown is far more logical to associate with the element of earth than green. You could also argue grey for stone. That doesn’t mean green is a bad association, there is intuition to it. It just isn’t the strongest association for everyone. The purpose of a correspondence is to have one thing evoke or bring to mind something else. Which is why if the connection you’re supposed to have according to one source doesn’t work, its time to use what does work for you.
There are some associations I’ll admit I won’t ever be able to shake. But when building an altar what matters is what it means to you. What feeling does something evoke? When you visualize in your mind’s eye, what do you see? What do you associate with what your altar is for?
Becoming Pagan Means Unlearning Symbols, and Relearning Them
Many pagan symbols have been co opted into Christianity—usually with negative meaning. Depending on how literal someone’s background is, it can be hard to see serpents as symbols of wisdom and transformation as opposed to evil. Or seeing the cauldron as a vessel of wisdom and not a place to brew evil potions. Or the hearth as a place of power and worship and not servitude. This can take some work, and sometimes starting small to not invoke a subconscious backlash is the way to go.
Symbols Can be a Shared Language
There are plenty of symbols in modern culture that can communicate messages that we don’t stop and analyze. Images like the American flag, a pick up truck, mean a bunch of things more than just the object. A culture’s power is not in what is said, but what can remain unsaid and still be understood by members of that culture. Traditions have specific tools they use and specific associations. If working within a particular tradition, the correspondences of that tradition must be used. Learning to substitute is something that can be done once the original recipe is down pat.
If there is something popping up more than is coincidence, like maybe an animal sighting or something in a dream, then looking up associations is a good start. Of course, if someone is trying to get your attention the act of searching for what this means tends can lead to the path they are trying to direct you toward.
But like any language, the language of symbols changes over time, with context, and in use by different groups.
The More Specific, the More Useful the Lore
Lets say you wanted to invite someone over to dinner who you hadn’t met, and wanted them to have a good experience. Strategies might be asking those who know the person what they like, and if they have any dietary restrictions. But also factor in what is within your ability to make. Don’t serve the vegan beef stew, but don’t try to make spanakopita and end up with mush because you didn’t know how to make it. Good hosts try to accommodate and ask polite questions to help keep their guests comfortable.
Lore, when it comes from a source of a shared experience, is an invaluable guide when treading the same path. Sometimes, the reason why a specific method is used is because it works. Sometimes it only works under certain circumstances or hasn’t been questioned, but the way to find out which is which is by doing. Lore this isn’t just what you find in books. Family lore like a specific recipe an ancestor enjoys or stories about how doing this brings good luck are also included. Lore isn’t just experiences of long ago. Through shared personal gnosis, modern pagans are creating new lore.
If you are trying to connect with spirits of nature, by all means go with your intuition and personal tastes with what you use. If you are trying to work with the fey, stay true to the letter of lore or else there will be consequences. Fey are not going to stop to make sure they have informed consent if someone doesn’t understand they are enacting a binding agreement. Accidentally having something harmful to them or that they greatly dislike when you are trying to create a space for them will at best result in them ignoring you or at worst being pissed off. Read up on old school fairy lore to find out how exceptionally a bad idea that is. A little research can save a lot of pain.
If you are trying to connect with the spirit of feminine energy, do what feels right. If you trying to connect with Brigid, then its time to make a Brigid’s cross. While gods tend to be more forgiving than many other beings of newbie faux pas, it is still better to get off on the right foot.
Part of the work of forming modern pagan religions is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. While our knowledge of past practices and beliefs is patchy at best, there is still plenty we can use to build on to create a modern pagan practice. Don’t be intimidated by what “should” be used, but understand what the goal and who you are trying to connect with.